A brief history
The Philippines (Filipino: Pilipinas), officially the Republic of the Philippines (Republika ng Pilipinas; RP), is an island nation located in Southeast Asia, with Manila as its capital city. The Philippine Archipelago comprises 7,107 islands in the western Pacific Ocean.
The country reflects diverse indigenous Austronesian cultures from its many islands, as well as European and American influence from Spain, Latin America and the United States.
A former Spanish and United States colony, the Philippines has many affinities with the Western world including Spain and Latin America due to three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, and Filipino and English are the official languages.
The ancestors of the vast majority of the Filipino people, the Austronesians from Taiwan, settled in northern Luzon circa 2,500 BC. They spread to the rest of the Philippines and later colonized most of Maritime Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific Islands. Arab, Chinese and Indian traders made contact with the Philippines during the course of the next thousand years, until the arrival of the Europeans.
At the service of Spain, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew were the first Europeans to arrive in the archipelago in March 1521. Magellan was later killed in battle by indigenous warriors in Mactan Island on account of political conflicts with Lapu-Lapu.
The beginnings of colonisation started to take form when King Philip II of Spain (after whom the Philippines was named) ordered a successive expedition. The conquistador, Miguel López de Legazpi arrived from Mexico in 1565 and formed the first Spanish settlements in Cebu. In 1571 he established Manila as the capital of the new Spanish colony.
Roman Catholic missionaries converted most of the inhabitants to Roman Catholicism. In the next 333 years, the Spanish military fought off various local indigenous revolts and numerous attempts by the British, Chinese, Dutch, French, Japanese, and Portuguese to take over the Philippines.
The most significant loss for Spain was the temporary occupation of the capital, Manila, by the British during the Seven Years' War. The Philippines was ruled as a territory of New Spain from 1565 to 1821, before it was administered directly from Spain. The Manila Galleon which linked Manila to Acapulco, Mexico traveled once or twice a year, beginning in the late 16th century. The Philippines opened itself to world trade on September 6, 1834.
More than 7,000 islands make up the Philippines, but the bulk of its fast-growing population lives on just 11 of them.
Much of the country is mountainous and prone to earthquakes and eruptions from around 20 active volcanoes. It is often buffeted by typhoons and other storms.
Two presidents of the Philippines were forced from office by "people power" in the space of 15 years.
In 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos stepped down after mass demonstrations accompanied allegations of electoral manipulation.
In January 2001 President Joseph Estrada relinquished power following months of protests. He has been charged with plundering the economy for his own benefit - a crime punishable by death.
On the southern island of Mindanao, rebels have been fighting for a separate Islamic state within the mainly-Catholic country. The decades-long conflict has claimed more than 120,000 lives. Sporadic violence has continued despite a 2003 ceasefire and peace talks.
Other Muslim separatists, the Abu Sayyaf group on Jolo, have a history of violence towards hostages, and the government has declared all-out war on the rebels.
Though it once boasted one of the region's best-performing economies, the Philippines is saddled with a large national debt and tens of millions of people live in poverty. The economy is heavily dependent on the billions of dollars sent home each year by the huge Filipino overseas workforce.
The Philippines has the highest birth rate in Asia, and forecasters say the population could double within three decades.
Governments generally avoid taking strong measures to curb the birth rate, not wishing to antagonise the Catholic Church, which opposes artificial methods of contraception.
The Philippines - a Spanish colony for more than three centuries - is named after a 16th century Spanish king. The territory was administered by the US in the early 20th century. Western and Asian influences have shaped Filipino culture.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's efforts to tackle corruption and to focus on economic reform have been undermined by a string of scandals.
The president won a second six-year term in June 2004, defeating her main rival, the film star Fernando Poe Junior.
But a year later her popularity rating had fallen to a record low amid opposition claims that she cheated in the 2004 elections. Opponents also levelled corruption allegations against her husband and other family members.
She apologised to the nation for talking to an election official about her hopes for victory in the run-up to the 2004 poll, but denied any wrongdoing. Two subsequent attempts to impeach her have failed.
Mrs Arroyo faces the challenge of delivering on her promises to create jobs and to improve living standards. Social and economic reforms introduced during her first term did little to ease poverty and the country's debt burden.
She advocates constitutional reform, proposing to swap the country's US-style presidential system for a parliamentary government.
She has taken a strong line on law and order and has lifted a moratorium on the death penalty. She has allied herself closely to US President George W Bush's "war on terror".
Gloria Arroyo comes from the political elite in the Philippines. She is a trained economist, whose father was president in the early 1960s.
She was elevated from vice president to president in 2001 after protests led to the ousting of her predecessor, Joseph Estrada. In 2003 she survived an attempt by military mutineers to unseat her.
She is keen to emphasise her Christian faith. Observers contrasted her approach with the hard-drinking lifestyle favoured by President Estrada.
The Philippines has a two-house legislature - the Congress - which comprises a House of Representatives, with up to 250 members, and a 24-member Senate.
Powerful commercial interests control or influence much of the media.
The lively TV scene is dominated by the free-to-air networks ABS-CBN and GMA, which attract the lion's share of viewing. Some Manila-based networks broadcast in local languages. The country has a well-developed cable TV system.
Films, comedies and entertainment programmes attract the largest audiences. Many TV broadcasters also operate radio networks. There are more than 700 FM and mediumwave (AM) radio stations, most of them commercial.
Press freedom is guaranteed under the 1987 constitution. The private press is vigorous, though tabloid newspapers are prone to sensationalism.
Source: Wikipedia, BBC